Seniors Co-Housing: Inspiring Examples

By March 11, 2019 No Comments

Further to our recent report Re-thinking the Tower on practical innovations towards housing affordability in Toronto, today we’re focusing on another big housing idea: seniors co-housing.

In 2016, for the first time in census history, Canada’s population of seniors aged 65+ exceeded that of children under 15. This senior population is expected to grow, making suitable and affordable housing options that will allow individuals to “age in place” – to live comfortably and safely in their own community for as long as they wish – a critical need. But as housing prices soar in urban and suburban centres, many seniors are either left with “too much house” and not enough support, or confined to either traditional retirement residences that can be expensive and include unnecessary services and amenities or long-term care facilities that limit independence.

That’s where seniors co-housing comes in, offering independence, a sense of community and tailored amenities, while keeping housing costs affordable and care services accessible. (See endnote for further definition of co-housing vs. co-living.)

The concept is gaining traction around the globe as a potential solution to the challenges of housing affordability, access to health services, and social isolation that many seniors face. Co-housing helps seniors age in place while getting the support they need by pairing smaller personal living space with common facilities and shared services. In some cases, shared community management and opportunities to build equity allow residents to maintain both financial and personal independence.

Seniors co-housing is taking a range of forms: in Ontario, long-time friends are banding together to purchase shared homes, while in Oakland, a non-profit housing provider is creating affordable developments tailored to the needs of older residents.

Here are a few inspiring examples of seniors co-housing, plus some thoughts on barriers and opportunities for seniors co-housing in Toronto.

Harbourside Co-Housing, Sooke, B.C.

One of the first seniors co-housing projects in Canada, Harbourside Co-Housing was created by a founding group of equity members who came together to plan and design a sustainable seniors’ community that would allow them to age in place. Today, Harbourside’s waterfront property includes 31 units in duplexes, four-plexes and a three-storey apartment building. Residents own their individual units through strata (condo) title, and collectively own the common areas through the strata corporation, with minimal monthly fees.

By developing the project themselves – purchasing land, hiring and working directly with an architect and project manager, participating in monthly collective decision-making meetings – members were able to eschew a developer’s profit in favour of enhanced affordability. Individual units at Harbourside cost about 15% less than the average waterfront condo in the area, and owners benefit from generous shared spaces, including common areas, guest rooms and a dock. Residents can also minimize expenses by sharing cars, utilities, tools, gardens and meals. Harbourside is committed to “co-care:” providing everyday support to neighbours and offering amenities (like a care suite where family members or service providers can stay) that allow residents to get the care they need.

Harbourside Co-housing Site Plan

Solterra Co-Housing, various locations in Ontario

Unlike Harbourside, where seniors came together to develop their own co-housing project, Solterra Co-Housing is a developer-led network of seniors co-housing projects in purpose-built and renovated homes throughout Ontario. In each property, Solterra allows four to six residents to purchase a percentage interest in the shared home and register as a Tenant in Common on the title/deed. This allows residents to retain equity in the property with the option to sell their share when they leave or die. Co-owners are jointly responsible for ongoing expenses (utilities, taxes, maintenance, etc.) and household decision making. Each resident has private space (bedroom, sitting area and bathroom) and shared space (kitchen, dining, sitting and outdoor areas). Extra support for housekeeping, shopping and household administration is provided by Solterra In-Home Support Services (a separate enterprise).

Solterra’s model offers savings while allowing residents to maintain financial independence, stability and dignity. The estimated monthly mortgage and service fees at Solterra’s homes are slightly higher than average rents in local semi-private seniors housing facilities. However, Solterra’s model allows residents greater financial independence, opportunities to build equity and a stake in household management.

Wine on the Porch, Toronto

On the smaller scale side of seniors co-housing is Wine on the Porch, a planned co-housing project in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood. The project is being developed by four long-time friends seeking to create a home where they can “remain independent by becoming interdependent.” The long-term goal is to create a small, self-managed co-housing community for residents over 50 that includes both private and common areas. Wine on the porch will be organized as a non-profit corporation and will operate according to “co-op principles” of shared decision making and participation in costs/benefits.

Wine on the Porch’s four founding members began exploring the idea of co-housing in 2016, and in 2018 purchased a home in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood. This initial group of shareholders is currently living in the home while preparing for major renovations that will allow them to expand the number of shares. Due to Toronto’s escalating home prices and the anticipated costs of the renovations, Wine on the Porch expects to offer equity shares to residents at a cost of about $700,000 each.

While the anticipated cost is relatively high, Wine on the Porch states their primary goals as creating a sense of community and reducing their environmental footprint, with lowering housing costs as a secondary motivator.

Making it Work Requires a Shift

Seniors co-housing can take diverse forms: created by the residents themselves, or developer-led; large, multi-unit complexes, or shared, single-family homes. But the concepts of sharing space and services to enhance affordability, convenience and a sense of community are at the core of each example.

As interest in co-housing grows, more resources are now available to assist individuals and groups in developing and managing their own projects (see Canadian Cohousing Network and Canadian Senior Cohousing Society). But roadblocks still exist: for individuals seeking to develop seniors co-housing communities, navigating complex financing, planning and design requirements can be onerous, as can building consensus amongst the group on key governance, management and design decisions. Restrictive neighbourhood zoning that prevents additions and accessory units can thwart even modest plans, and eliminate the possibility of larger, multi-unit facilities in existing “stable” neighbourhoods. Local opposition from homeowners and politicians fearful of inviting illegal rooming houses into established neighbourhoods can stand in the way. And while co-housing can offer significant affordability benefits, high initial capital costs in hot property markets like Toronto can pose a significant barrier to projects collectively financed by future residents.

Despite financial and planning barriers, there seems to be a strong and growing appetite for seniors cohousing. Take, for example, Ontario’s recently proposed “Golden Girls Act,” which would amend the Planning Act to prevent municipalities from enacting by-laws that would prohibit seniors co-housing. The proposed Act recognizes how seniors co-housing can benefit communities, and seeks to alleviate the pressure of burdensome restrictions and local opposition.

As our population ages and demand increases for seniors housing options that allows for aging in place, Toronto should explore what shifts can be made in regulation, zoning and financing to rethink seniors living and facilitate co-housing.


Endnote: Co-living vs. co-housing

While there is some debate over definitions, we like to think of co-housing as a unique form of co-living that emphasizes social connection, interaction and mutual support.

Co-living, as covered in our report, generally refers to a multi-unit housing typology in which residents swap personal space in exchange for shared amenities and services, like lounges, communal kitchens, outdoor space and laundry rooms. Co-living models are largely market-rate rental housing, created and managed by the developer. Examples like Ollie and Node — geared mainly towards young, single urbanites — come to mind.

Co-housing, on the other hand, generally refers to an intentional, self-built community wherein residents maintain private dwellings centered around communal spaces and services tailored to meet their specific needs. These models are often community-led — collectively designed, planned, owned and managed by residents.

As seniors have likely built equity over time, co-housing models based on shared ownership make sense. But in drawing distinctions between co-living (largely rental housing targeted at young people) and co-housing (largely ownership housing led by seniors), it is worth considering how a rental model might be adapted for seniors, perhaps as a co-op, and conversely, how an ownership model might be developed for younger residents, perhaps as a mortgage-sharing arrangement.